THE previous Leeds United manager to occupy a promotion place at Christmas believes the January transfer window could prove pivotal in his former club’s quest to make a Premier League return.
Simon Grayson’s Preston North End will host Leeds on Boxing Day in front of a bumper crowd at Deepdale.
It will be six years to the day since United were sitting second in the table under Grayson, who as a lifelong fan remains a keen follower of the Elland Road club’s fortunes.
Leeds fell away in the second half of that 2010-11 season and eventually finished seventh, a fate current head coach Garry Monk will be desperate to avoid this time around after heading into the festive season occupying a play-off place.
“Garry is slowly building what he wants to build,” said Grayson to The Yorkshire Post. “Leeds aren’t the finished article, by any means.
“But they have developed the ability to grind out results even if not playing well and they keep clean sheets. Those are good traits to have.
“I am told the vibe is similar to that season when we just missed out on the Championship play-offs. The crowd is back onside and Elland Road is not an easy place to go again.
“There has been a lot of animosity among supporters towards those running the club in recent years and that made it an easier place to play for the opposition.
“But the football club seems united again and that is really helping Leeds and Garry because the crowd can make such a difference.
“I think back to when I was a player in the Eighties and Nineties, and Elland Road was such an intimidating place to visit. No one enjoyed going there.
“When I was manager, it was a bit like that. The Leeds faithful are incredible when in full voice and they were right behind us. Teams were beaten before kick-off some weeks.”
Leeds, of course, are on the road this Christmas with the Boxing Day visit to Preston followed by a trip to Aston Villa on December 29.
But Monk’s men will be backed in huge numbers with 5,700 fans expected at Deepdale for a fixture that will inevitably trigger memories of Grayson’s stint in charge at Elland Road.
“I do remember that Christmas when Leeds beat QPR 2-0 to go second,” said the 47-year-old, who had led Leeds to promotion from League One seven months earlier.
“We were looking really good, but we didn’t bring in the centre-half we probably needed in the January window and fell away after that. If we had done that, I think we could have finished in the top two. My philosophy was that we had such an array of attacking talent in Max (Gradel), Snoddy (Robert Snodgrass), Jonny (Howson) and (Luciano) Becchio that we would score goals. We just let too many in.
“If we could have got one or maybe even two central defenders in, I think we could have been very close to getting automatic promotion.
“I don’t have any regrets or lay awake at night thinking about it. But, from time to time, I have found myself wondering, ‘What if?’
“If Leeds could have gone up that year, I might be a Premier League manager now, and the last few years could have been very different for Leeds as a club. But we didn’t and that is that.
“It was frustrating to miss out completely on the play-offs that season – though probably not as frustrating as getting sacked the following year.”
Like Grayson six years ago, Monk is facing a potentially pivotal January window. Much of this revolves around the future of his loanees, with a deal in place to make Pontus Jansson’s switch from Torino permanent if Leeds stump up £3.5m.
Kyle Bartley, another key performer this season, is also on loan from Swansea City, while Monk has previously spoken of his desire to make Pablo Hernandez’s stay at Elland Road permanent from Dubai-based Al-Nasr in the new year.
“I am not too sure what the situation is for Leeds in terms of their players or who they want,” said Grayson, who was in the crowd at Anfield as Monk’s men were knocked out of the League Cup by Liverpool last month.
“But the window is likely to make a big difference because Leeds are in a good position and Garry will want to build on that.”
Preston, meanwhile, will provide a stern test for United.
After a slow start, North End have hit their stride in recent months and currently sit 11th in the table.
Just five points separate the Lillywhites from Sheffield Wednesday, the New Year’s Eve visitors to Deepdale, in the final play-off place so Grayson appreciates just how big the festive season could be for his side.
“Christmas games are always a bit more special,” he added. “But we are very fortunate this year in that our next three home games are Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday and Arsenal (in the FA Cup).
“I’d imagine all three will be close to a sell-out. All three will bring different tests, but I don’t think any of them will be under-estimating us.
“Leeds, for obvious reasons, was the first fixture I looked for in June and it is great to have them here on Boxing Day.
“Garry has some young players, who due to their age can be a little up and down in terms of performance. But things are going well for Leeds.
“The crowd helps a lot. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Leeds have scored a few late goals this season when the fans have been right behind them.
“It was like that when I was manager. The crowd just willed us forward. It is something our players will have to be aware of on Boxing Day.”